by Billy Craven

She took a sip of her cappuccino and regretted not telling the young lad to hold off on the chocolate powder. The sweetness was cloying and she could do without the calories. The girl in her Spin class told her it was seven calories. That’s right, seven. As if seven calories mattered to that little princess with her perfect figure and the permanent pearly-white American smile on her face. It was a smile that revealed nothing—probably because there was nothing there to reveal. Still though, seven calories.

Sighing into her cup and letting the steam caress her face, she imagined it meandering its way in and out of every blemish and wrinkle, like mustard gas drifting through the trenches. It was strange—she had always taken milestone birthdays in her stride, but now with 43 looming, she suddenly felt the great pressure of middle age descend upon her. It was as though all the possibilities of youth were now over and the path of her life had been irrevocably set. The roads not taken would remain just that. She could feel the doors of opportunity closing to her, barring her from entry. She felt it in her flesh and in her bones, both of which were not what they used to be. She felt it in the protests of her knees each morning as she dragged herself stiffly out of bed. She felt it every time she opened Instagram and saw the youthful glow of women, travelling the world with their perfectly unkempt boyfriends and their organic wholefood plates. She knew it was all a lie of course but it didn’t stop the envy.

She watched the young barista from over her coffee cup. He couldn’t have been more than twenty. He was lean and lithe and wore the same hairstyle as every other young fella in the city. A tattoo peeped coyly from under his white shirt collar; it might have been the top of a crucifix. When she was twenty a neck tattoo would have been a sign of something—danger, rebellion, unemployment. Now it was just another accessory of youth. She watched him clean the countertop with a towel that needed changing and wondered if she could seduce him. If she was to stand up, shut the door and switch the sign to CLOSED how would he react? She imagined him taking her roughly from behind, up against the counter, with all the energy and exuberance and gratitude of youth. She bit her lower lip at the prospect.

But she was no fool. She remembered twenty. It would all be over in a hurry. He’d be sweating and panting and she’d be bored and unsatisfied. Poor lads had it tough now, raised on the impossible sexual expectations of pornography—they hadn’t a hope.

She had less sympathy for the girls. She saw them on Friday nights in town, slim and perky, everything in its right place. They wore slinky, figure-hugging dresses and walked with swagger and assurance. Of course it was easy for them to strut with confidence—they were wearing trainers. Who decided that was okay? It didn’t seem fair somehow. She’d spent her early twenties teetering in heels and turning ankles on the cobblestones of Temple Bar. Looking good was meant to hurt. There was a price to be paid. And she was still paying it—with Spin classes and Pilates and an ever-widening arse that seemed to mock her best efforts. And what was the point? She was 13 years married and coming up on 43 years of age. Who was she trying to kid? Who was left to impress?

Maybe she might leave him, but the odds of that were slim. He’d never give her a good enough reason, and it all seemed like too much hassle. And the thoughts of selling the house . . . Maybe if he was to die, though. Nothing painful, no prolonged illness or anything grisly. But if he was to just die, then she could move on without the guilt (and without the mortgage). Still though, a widow? To be a widow was to be old. Widows weren’t sexy. They were lonely figures who dressed in black and inspired only pity. Of course if she was to die, it would be a different story. He’d be grand. Widower had a kind of romantic allure to it. Some desperate woman would be only too happy to comfort him in his grief. Off the top of her head she could think of three friends who’d be all over him like a rash. He’d end up being fought over, and he’d probably love it, too. Of course he would. But that wasn’t fair. He was a good man, decent. He was . . . dependable. Yes, that was the word for him. Dependable—but where was the romance in dependable? Where was the excitement? The danger? Where was the tattoo?

It was strange. She remembered him proposing and she remembered saying yes, but she never remembered agreeing to be married. To be somebody’s wife seemed faintly ridiculous. It was for grownups, for people like her mother. It felt like something that had happened to her, rather than something she had been a part of, as though she’d had no agency. And now to be 13 years married seemed even more absurd. 13 years. Her childhood dog had lived 13 years, and it was considered a good life. 13 years was the life of a pet.  A whole life of a living thing spent with this one man. Surely that was madness. And it wasn’t like he was bad or anything. He had plenty of good points. He was a gentleman, and a gentle man, and he had lots of empathy for others—it was actually one of the things that annoyed her. She’d be giving out about some girl in work and he’d be bending over backwards to see things from her point of view. As if that was the point. Who cared about the girl’s point of view? He was laid back, accommodating to a fault. When she said she didn’t want kids he had taken it in his stride, never pushed her on it, never pushed her on anything really—where was the push in him?

And the truth was she wasn’t even sure if she wanted kids or not. She just knew she didn’t want to go through pregnancy. Nine months with some alien being growing inside you, leaching whatever nutrients it could get its slimy little hands on. They were parasites, really. Nine months under attack from within. Her friend Louise had been so pretty before the baby, but during the pregnancy her skin lost its lustre and she had started losing chunks of her hair. I mean why would a baby do that? It seemed mean-spirited. And yes, her hair had grown back afterwards, but it never looked the same. Nine months of back aches and nausea, swollen breasts and bleeding gums. No thanks. But if she was really honest with herself, it wasn’t the nine months of pregnancy that held her back. It was the labour that followed. The tearing, the ripping, the bleeding, the pain. How could things ever return to normal down there? She didn’t think she could endure it, drugs or no drugs. She still shuddered at the thoughts of childhood nettle stings and a nasty spill she’d taken from her bike as a ten-year-old. She wasn’t cut out for pain. And then what if the kid turned out to be a disaster. A spoiled brat, a delinquent, a racist? Women with the very best of intentions had given birth to every scumbag out there. What if she was to be one of those? No, it was too risky.

She placed the coffee cup firmly on the table causing the barista to look up from the countertop and raise a questioning eyebrow. She smiled placatingly. She could definitely seduce him if she wanted. She still had that power over men. She wasn’t invisible just yet. Maybe her eyes didn’t sparkle with youth anymore and maybe her bra was doing more work than it had expected, but she could still pull off a smoulder when she wanted. There’d been her co-worker at the Christmas party last year who approached her with a lusty wink and six pints’ worth of confidence. She’d reduced him to a stuttering eejit with a flutter of her false lashes and one well-placed innuendo. Nothing had happened, of course. He had all the sex appeal of a turbot but it was nice to know she could have had him if she wanted. The memory imbued her with confidence, and she locked eyes with the barista. She smiled knowingly until he was forced to look away, and she thought she saw a flush of colour rising in his cheeks. She smiled into her coffee cup, delighted with her victory, filing the moment away for later use.

The door to the Gents opened and her husband emerged, still tucking his shirt into his elasticated waistband. He paused to let a customer pass with a nod and a smile and then made his way back to their table. She envied him and his waddle. How comfortably he had slipped into middle age; he seemed almost proud of his expanding middle. He’d been born just in time, the last generation of males who never contemplated a gym membership. He even took his shirt off at the beach without embarrassment, without a shameful thought for his hairy back. He still wanted to have sex with the lights on, for God’s sake.

“I got you a cappuccino,” she said, as he took his seat.

“Cheers,” he smiled. “Oooh, nice one. They put the chocolate on it!” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation, genuinely delighted with this 7-calorie surprise and it caused her to smile. He wasn’t imagining seducing baristas or reliving his twenties. He was excited about the prospect of some unexpected cocoa powder. He was so simple. It was infuriating and endearing all at once.

“What’s up? Do I have something on my chin?” he asked innocently, trying to decipher the look on his wife’s face.

She looked at him and laughed happily, then licked her thumb and reached across the table to gently wipe his chin, because of course he bloody did.

Billy Craven is a teacher working in Dublin, Ireland. He has previously had short stories and poetry published in a variety of magazines including Shooter Literary Magazine, Paper Lanterns and The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland.